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Herman Melville's historic house

C all me Ishmael in a river valley? In the 1850s, Herman Melville and his family lived here, in a farmhouse in Pittsfield, and he wrote Moby-Dick here — the novel no one read in his lifetime that has rounded the world a century later.

The Berkshires inspired the book. Sitting in his study, at his desk, Melville looked out his study window at the ridge of Mount Greylock. He could see its crest above the grey-blue ridges on the horizon, and he thought of of the back of a sperm whale as it shows above the water for a moment, as the whale takes a breath and then dives.

Now the old yellow clapboard house is the home of the Berkshire Historical Society. It holds exhibits on Melville’s family, the time when he lived here and the Civil war, and the sea. Michael Melle’s straw sculptures show life on farms and ships in the 19th century. And a nature trail runs through the woods and fields.

Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick at Arrowhead, his historic house and former farm in Pittsfield.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Leaves of grass

Herman Melville spent summers here at his uncle’s farm as a boy, and in 1850 he and his family moved here from New York City. He had made a name as a writer by then, with his early adventure stories about the south seas. He had served once on a whaler out of New Bedford and walked off the ship in the Marquesas to live on the islands.

Here he worked the farm as he worked on his novel, and when he struggled with his family and his writing, sometimes the land gave him peace. He once wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne, "This ‘all' feeling ... you must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head.”

From the top of Monument Mountain, Mount Greylock shows in the distance. Herman Melville thought it looked like the back of a sperm whale surfacing above the waves.
Monument Mountain / Photo by Kate Abbott

Good omens

When Melville was writing here and getting in the hay, Nathaniel Hawthorne moved into Hawthorne Cottage in Lenox, just up the road. While Hawthorne wrote and published The House of Seven Gables, the two writers became close friends and then abruptly parted ways.

Every year, The Trustees of Reservations re-enact the picnic on Monument Mountain when Hawthorne and Melville first met and talked as they took shelter from a sudden thunderstorm. Guides lead a hike, an hour’s moderate climb up to the ridge, and read from both men’s words as they look out over the valley.